May 15, 2015

The Rifle on the Wall

        Anton Chekhov (Russia, 1860-1904) famously wrote, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”  He added in a variation of the same statement, “It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”  This principle, encouraging Occam’s razor and discouraging false foreshadowing, is generally taken as advice to writers, which it was meant to be.  But it also tells us something about ourselves as readers.  That is, we expect everything that’s mentioned to have significance.  Presumably this is because authors have trained us to expect significance.  In the mystery genre especially we’re always looking for clues and we feel wonderfully clever when we think we’ve noticed the significance of the rifle on the wall.  Of course, mystery writers want to keep us guessing.  Therefore they sprinkle the room not only with a rifle on the wall, but a couple of knives in the drawer, a brass candlestick on the mantelpiece, a pistol in the desk, and some poisoned brandy on the sideboard.  That way the rifle may never be fired after all.
        In a related effect, as readers we expect that any character given a name will be significant - or at least more significant than any nameless characters.  Again, this is simply a convention employed by writers and learned by readers.  In real life everyone has a name, of course, but a significant role in my life could easily be played by a person whose name I don’t know - and conversely, there are plenty of people to whom I’m introduced by name who then never enter my life’s story a second time.  However, while readers may have been trained by our books to expect significance from anything specifically mentioned, there may also be some innate human characteristics that are reinforcing the habit.  For one thing, we’re hardwired to look for patterns, so we want to make connections between everything that’s drawn to our attention.  Researchers discovered that if a character in a story is introduced only by name, without any further information given at the point of introduction, readers keep that name in a specially accessible part of their memory until they learn sufficient background information to slot the character properly into the framework of the story.  In other words, our brains are designed to use certain criteria to determine that some things are significant (such as proper names), and to treat significant things differently from all the other details in life that fly by (such as the people to whom we’re never introduced).
        Now back to the rifle that was never fired because in fact the crime was committed with the fireplace poker.  (Ha ha - fooled you, didn’t I?  But I told you there was a mantelpiece, so you should have deduced the poker!)  Chekhov is urging us to cut out all superfluities, and he’s quite right; everything in writing should be there for a reason.  Just remember that the reason doesn’t necessarily have to be so obvious as Chekhov implies.  I shouldn’t hang a rifle on the wall of my story for no reason at all, but that doesn’t mean it absolutely must go off.  Perhaps the rifle is there to indicate that Major Grumbacher is a man who admires and celebrates the manly arts of hunting and war.  Perhaps the rifle represents the memory of violent Grandfather Silas, whose oppressive influence hangs over the house like a shadow.  Perhaps the rifle is simply a red herring.  Perhaps the rifle is a rare and valuable piece that once belonged to Annie Oakley and will be stolen by idealistic young Charlotte as an icon to represent the achievements of women.  Perhaps taking the rifle off its display hooks reveals the lever that opens Lady Davenport’s secret wall safe behind it.  Perhaps the rifle is a stage prop from Tony Terrence’s one great success 45 years ago…  You get the idea.  By all means cover your stories’ walls with rifles, but don’t be so boring as to make them all go off!

[Pictures: Soper’s Rifle Mechanism, wood block print from The English Mechanic & Mirror of Science, 1870 (Image from Andy Brill);
German Falconer, wood block print by J. Amman, 16th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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